Voices muf­fled by the of­fence forces

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - SHAKIRA HUS­SEIN

AS a child I used to lie awake at night writ­ing let­ters in my head to Enid Bly­ton, with whom I had an in­ti­mate but en­tirely one- way re­la­tion­ship. I des­per­ately wanted to be­lieve that in Bly­ton- land I would have been scoff­ing ginger beer and catch­ing smug­glers and jewel thieves with Ju­lian, Dick, Anne, Ge­orge and Timmy the dog. But in my heart of hearts I knew that was not my place; I would have been one of the com­i­cal and- or sin­is­ter dark- skinned, for­eign­look­ing strangers who hung around the edge of the story. The Fa­mous Five would have sneered at me, then called the cops. I loved them, but they didn’t love me.

I never sent my let­ter to Bly­ton. She had died even be­fore I was born. And I now don’t quite re­mem­ber what I wanted to say. Prob­a­bly that it wasn’t fair to leave me out of the fun; that dark­skinned, for­eign- look­ing strangers could scoff ginger beer and catch crim­i­nals just as ef­fi­ciently as any up­per- mid­dle- class Bri­tish twit. But I do re­mem­ber one line quite clearly: ‘‘ Chil­dren to­day know about the world.’’ And this was the crux of my com­plaint against Bly­ton: that she was ig­no­rant, that she did not un­der­stand a world that in­cluded peo­ple like me.

I re­lived my am­biva­lent child­hood re­la­tion­ship with Bly­ton when I read that a com­mis­sioned chil­dren’s novel by Aus­tralian writer John Dale had been re­fused pub­li­ca­tion be­cause it was al­legedly of­fen­sive to Mus­lims. Dale is an ex­pe­ri­enced writer and an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Cen­tre for New Writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy, Syd­ney. But af­ter book­sell­ers and li­brar­i­ans said they would not put The Army of the Pure on their book­shelves, Scholas­tic told Dale they would not pub­lish it.

Al­though this de­ci­sion was made in an at­tempt to de­fend my re­li­gious com­mu­nity, I could not see it as any­thing but bad news. A sig­nif­i­cant gap in per­cep­tion has de­vel­oped be­tween many Mus­lims and non- Mus­lims on the is­sue of of­fence. Mus­lims feel be­sieged, un­able to open a news­pa­per or turn on the television with­out find­ing them­selves be­ing var­i­ously at­tacked, pa­tro­n­ised, bul­lied and mocked. Many non- Mus­lims, on the other hand, feel Mus­lims have wrested con­trol of other cul­tures, in­hibit­ing free speech.

This per­cep­tion arises in part from events such as the re­sponse to the Dan­ish car­toons of the prophet Mo­hammed and the mur­der of Dutch film­maker Theo van Gogh, but it is also par­tially due to non- Mus­lim cul­tural ad­min­is­tra­tors mak­ing pre- emp­tive de­ci­sions about what Mus­lims would and would not find of­fen­sive. A Ger­man opera com­pany can­celled a pro­duc­tion of Mozart’s Idome­neo be­cause it would have fea­tured the sev­ered heads of Je­sus, Bud­dha and, most

prob­lem­at­i­cally, Mo­hammed. The per­for­mance was re­in­stated af­ter Mus­lim re­li­gious lead­ers said they be­lieved it should go ahead.

In Aus­tralia, a mocked- up ver­sion of Where’s Wally called Where’s Bin Laden was pulled from some shops af­ter staff de­cided that it ‘‘ wasn’t very taste­ful’’. This opin­ion was not shared by the book­seller at my lo­cal Is­lamic cen­tre, where it was on prom­i­nent dis­play.

Dale’s book sim­i­larly fell foul of cul­tural gate­keep­ers rather than Mus­lims, but its can­cel­la­tion adds to fears of Mus­lim cul­tural con­trol.

In an act of con­sid­er­able trust, Dale pro­vided me with a draft of his book for com­ment. I ap­proached it with no pre­con­ceived ideas as to whether I would find it of­fen­sive and with mixed feel­ings about the en­tire no­tion of of­fen­sive­ness.

I don’t be­lieve that books should be re­fused pub­li­ca­tion purely on the grounds that Mus­lims ( or some Mus­lims) don’t like them. On the other hand, much de­pends on con­text, and a chil­dren’s novel surely should be judged on cri­te­ria dif­fer­ent from Christo­pher Hitchens’s de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive God is Not Great .

As it turned out, I was not of­fended by Dale’s book, al­though I had plenty of com­ments to make. Its ba­sic premise — Is­lamic ex­trem­ists plan a dev­as­tat­ing at­tack on Syd­ney, in­trepid kids save the day — is clearly an imag­i­na­tive take on present po­lit­i­cal events and a le­git­i­mate area for chil­dren’s fiction. There is a good Mus­lim who names the at­tack as un- Is­lamic and a bad non- Mus­lim bully who is ar­guably the real vil­lain of the story. In my view, the main short­com­ing of the draft I read is not that it fea­tures Mus­lim ter­ror­ists but that all the Mus­lim char­ac­ters ( in­clud­ing the good Mus­lim who proves his loy­alty to Aus­tralia) are rep­re­sented as for­eign.

Their dress is elab­o­rately ex­otic, their English stilted and man­nered. Such ex­oti­cism would seem dis­so­nant to the av­er­age Aus­tralian Mus­lim child, who may in­deed be familiar with ex­otic clothes and stilted English but also with Mus­lims who speak with broad Aus­tralian ac­cents and dress in jeans and T- shirts.

I dis­pute Dale’s images of Mus­lims in fancy dress ( even though I some­times wear ex­otic clothes, too), but this is not the same as tak­ing of­fence. My re­al­ity does not match his fiction and, since he seeks to ground his fiction in re­al­ity, this is rel­e­vant. But, of course, oth­ers have their own re­al­ity. I can ex­press my re­al­ity to Dale, but it is up to him whether to take it on board.

The big ques­tion is whose re­al­ity fi­nally de­ter­mines whether the book and oth­ers like it are suit­able for pub­li­ca­tion by a re­spected chil­dren’s pub­lisher. While I am com­fort­able in my own judg­ment of Dale’s book, I am less sure about how much it should count to any­one else. If de­ci­sions are go­ing to be made on the grounds of whether a book or per­for­mance is of­fen­sive to Mus­lims, then surely Mus­lims should be some­how in­volved in that process.

Yet I have no de­sire to see Mus­lim cul­tural gate­keep­ers given the task of pass­ing ver­dict on of­fen­sive­ness. There is no con­sen­sus among Mus­lims as to what is or is not of­fen­sive. I know a cou­ple of Mus­lims who had a quiet gig­gle at one of the Dan­ish car­toons ( most of which were no­table for their lack of fun­ni­ness). And Mus­lims fre­quently of­fend each other. I am banned from view­ing the main Aus­tralian Mus­lim chat site be­cause of an al­legedly ‘‘ dis­gust­ing and of­fen­sive’’ ar­ti­cle I wrote for the Crikey web­site. I think there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween rea­son­able and un­rea­son­able of­fence but, again, I have no idea who should de­cide what that is.

Nor do I sug­gest the only peo­ple ca­pa­ble of judg­ing of­fen­sive­ness are the tar­gets of the of­fence. I of­ten judge a piece of writ­ing to be ho­mo­pho­bic or anti- Semitic with­out wait­ing for a ver­dict from gays or Jews. But my con­fi­dence in such judg­ments is not so ab­so­lute that I would make de­ci­sions based on them with­out seek­ing the opin­ion of those more di­rectly af­fected. Per­haps, in­stead of gate­keep­ers, we should as­pire to con­ver­sa­tions, as many of them as pos­si­ble. I still wish I could have sent my let­ter to Bly­ton.

There is one ques­tion I can an­swer: would I give The Army of the Pure to my child to read? The an­swer is yes, I would, and in fact I did. Shakira Hus­sein is ed­i­tor of in­ter­faith on­line mag­a­zine Shalom, Pax, Salam. She is writ­ing a PhD on the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween West­ern and Mus­lim fem­i­nism at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity in Can­berra.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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